Like many creative types, I am a compulsive project starter. This used to also mean that I was a compulsive project abandoner - leaving a trail of half-starts around my office and hard drive. While letting some projects fall by the wayside is reasonable - no one, and I mean no one, wants to see me attempt to knit - others are a little closer to our hearts (or pocketbooks) and must be completed, no matter how many cute pictures of kitties are waiting to be discovered on the internet.
This is where to-do lists come in handy. Having a list of all the things that you really want or have to do lays out in clear terms your task load, and keeps you from forgetting. Because hey, let’s be honest, we’ve all discovered half-idealized projects that we totally forgot we had even started. Or is that just me?
The inherent problem with to-do lists is that they are often anemic, lacking in any clear direction. Say your two primary goals for the year are to finish that novel you’ve always dreamed of writing, and get the house in clean order once and for all. For many people, this list is going to look disconcertingly similar to a New Year’s Resolution:
- Write that novel
- Clean up the house
This is usually written on a notepad that meanders its way into the junk drawer to languish amongst the dried-up pens and random bits of hardware you’ve hung onto because some day you just might need those three tiny dowels leftover from your Ikea dresser. Maybe you got fancy and put it in an app like Evernote, or you scrawled it on the “notes” page that kicks off most pen-and-paper day planners. You know, that page that gets skipped when you flip to whatever week you’re actually working on. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done with it, that list is doing nothing for you.
You know you want to clean the house. You know you want to write a book. What you need is a place to begin, a bedrock from which to build your house-cleaning and story-spinning aspirations upon. Ask yourself: what comes first?
Break It Up
Using our two worthy examples, let’s spin this out. Maybe you’re super new to writing fiction. You read a lot, and have a lot of ideas, but the idea of pulling up a blank page and plunking down “Chapter 1” is daunting. So your first step might be to research writing. Pick up a book or two about plotting, or world building, or whatever you feel your weak point is, and give yourself some time to get comfortable with the concept. Then consider your topic, and how you might need to be more informed on said topic. If you’re writing a fictional narrative about a woman in the Crusades, you might want to do some historical research to give it that sweet, sweet sense of verisimilitude.
To clean the house, maybe you decide the first thing you need to do is declutter, but the idea of doing the whole house at once is daunting.
The golden rule of actionable tasks is this: If a single task ever feels overwhelming, break it up.
- Write that novel
- Book about plot
- Article about the Crusades
- Clean up the house
What you’ve got there is the first hint of actionable tasks - things you can do in one chunk and cross off. Crossing things off is oh-so-satisfying.
As you’re breaking up your tasks, watch out for places where swapping the order might be more beneficial. Say, for example, that in the process of cleaning your house you want to install some new shelves and have a garage sale. Why not have the garage sale first, to help fund the purchase of those shelves? Do you want to have the carpets cleaned before or after you replace some furniture? That kinda’ thing.
Deadlines Are Friends
Now that you’ve got your projects broken down into bite-sized, actionable tasks, it’s time to get real. Just how long is it going to take you to do all of this, anyway? This metric is a personal one, depending on your schedule and what you reasonably think you can accomplish in the amount of time you have to set aside. When you’re first starting out, you’re probably going to find your estimates were wrong. This is okay - adjust as you go, and understand that you expected your estimates to change from the very beginning. Be generous with yourself. Give yourself more time than you think you need. Getting ahead can be invigorating - falling behind can make you stall all progress and quit.
And yes, you have to set deadlines. Without a schedule in place, your nicely formatted list has become just as forgettable as the resolution rehash you might have started with. Or worse, you’ll never advance past step one. Don’t fall into the trap of doing the same task over and over again and pretending that you’re making progress. Unless you’re eventually checking off subtask headers, you’re stuck.
If you’re unsure where to begin with setting deadlines, I recommend:
The Block of Time Method
This works best when you know you’ll have a set chunk of time, usually every day, that you can dedicate to one task. For example, if you have an hour before bed to read every night, then you know that a book that takes you approximately four hours to read is going to take you four days. This can also work for larger chunks on fewer days. Make sure to give yourself a little buffer when you’re starting out, and watch out for holidays or other dates that might trip you up. So now you’re subtasks look like this:
- Write that novel
- Book about plot [Start Monday the 1st, finish by Friday the 5th]
- Article about the Crusades [Start Saturday the 6th, finish by Sunday the 7th]
When planning your goals, be careful not to overwhelm yourself, but also make sure you’re building momentum. Do not let a week pass by wherein you do nothing to progress on your list. Put the list somewhere you will see it - preferably every day. Google calendar is a good place to start, or even just a notebook next to your workstation that is always opened to the appropriate page. I recommend the app Todoist if you’re looking for dedicated software.
Treat Yo’ Self
If you’re having trouble with motivation, the ole’ carrot on the end of the stick method is still a winner. Except, you know, you actually get to eat the carrot eventually. Or the hot chocolate, or the fancy tea, or take a long bath. Whatever tempts you forward, and doesn’t distract from your overall plan, is a good treat.
A good treat is an ice cream cone, a bad treat is taking a break from your research for a week. Momentum is golden. And remember: you’re doing this for you.